Language, prejudice, and the aims of hermeneutic phenomenology: terminological reflections on “mania”

A.V. Fernandez

Department of Philosophy, University of South Florida, USA

In this paper I examine the ways in which our language and terminology predetermine how we approach, investigate and conceptualise mental illness. I address this issue from the standpoint of hermeneutic phenomenology, and my primary object of investigation is the phenomenon referred to as “mania”. Drawing on resources from classical phenomenology, I show how phenomenologists attempt to overcome their latent presuppositions and prejudices in order to approach “the matters themselves”. In other words, phenomenologists are committed to the idea that in our everyday, natural attitude, we take for granted a number of prejudices and presuppositions that predetermine how we conceive of and understand what we experience. In order to properly approach the phenomena themselves, we need to find ways of neutralising our presuppositions and prejudices in order to develop new (and hopefully more accurate) accounts of the phenomena under investigation. One of the most popular examples of such an attempt at neutralisation is what Edmund Husserl calls the epoché, which is the practice of bracketing out or suspending presuppositions. However, later phenomenologists developed alternative approaches. Martin Heidegger, for instance, engaged in etymological analyses to discover latent meanings in our language and terminology. Hans-Georg Gadamer also engaged in historical analyses of how our traditions sediment into latent prejudices. After discussing the various ways in which phenomenologists have attempted to neutralise presuppositions and prejudices prior to engaging in their investigations, I apply some of these principles and methods to the domain of psychopathology, and discuss some of the prejudices inherent in contemporary discussions of the phenomenon of mania. I examine recent attempts to link the phenomenon that we today refer to as “mania” with the ancient Greek concept of “μανία” (mania), and argue that the practice of linking contemporary and historical concepts can be detrimental to attempts at reclassifying disorders. In addition, I consider the implications of the shift in terminology from “manic depressive illness” to “bipolar disorder” – especially how conceiving of mania as one of two “poles” predetermines its description by both clinicians and patients. Finally, I address the implications of the headings under which mania and bipolar disorder are discussed within diagnostic manuals. For example, I discuss the removal of the headings of affective and mood disorders in the DSM-5, and the explicit decision by the authors to place bipolar disorder between depressive disorders and schizophrenia. What I aim to accomplish in this paper is not so much a phenomenological investigation of mania as it is a pre-phenomenological investigation. In other words, I offer a preparatory investigation of the phenomenon (or phenomena) referred to as “mania” in contemporary discourse, with the intention of laying the groundwork for further phenomenological and psychological research.

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